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This year I randomly decided I would go run my very first half marathon (21.1 km) during the next Nike Melbourne Marathon Festival. (Hahaha, how good are breakups?!). This honestly felt like a bit of a reach for me, as there are almost two weeks a month where working out is the last thing I want to do, thanks to my menstrual cycle. However, I recently learned that if you train in alignment of your menstrual cycle, you can change that.
Yes, since your body goes through several hormonal fluctuations over the 28 days (the average cycle), you should change a few things in your routine to get the most out of your energy levels.
How do I know this magical piece of information? Bc, I enlisted the help of Nike Run Coach and all-round legend Lydia O’Donnellwho explained to me how the different phases of our cycles affect your ability (and will) to exercise.
“By tracking your menstrual cycle and understanding the hormonal fluctuations that occur during the cycle, you can adapt your training/exercise to these fluctuations and get the most out of your female physiology,” explains O’Donnell. By doing this, you’re not only giving your body what it needs when it needs it, but you’re also building a more lasting relationship between your body and exercise.
So first of all, what are the different stages of your menstrual cycle?
The follicular phase
According to O’Donnell, you’re likely to feel your strongest and fittest during the follicular phase. It’s the first half of your menstrual cycle (day one is the first day of your period), and it goes from day one to just after ovulation (which for a 28-day textbook is around day 14).
“The follicular phase is dominated by estrogen, and when the female sex hormone progesterone is at its lowest. Estrogen is anabolic, meaning it helps build lean muscle and allows the body to store glycogen more easily,” explains O’Donnell.
This means you probably have more energy to burn and your body will recover faster and easier. During this phase of the month you feel like hitting all your training goals, so try to make the most of it.
What kind of exercise should you do during the follicular phase?
During the follicular phase, O’Donnell recommends taking those more challenging workouts. “It’s a good time to push the body relatively hard. With the rise in estrogen during ovulation, we tend to encourage higher intensity workouts that can get your heart rate up.”
So think of HIIT workouts, F45, boxing, AMRAP bodyweight sessions, speed and insurance runs, and other more intense workouts.
If you have persistent menstrual symptoms during the follicular phase, you can always opt for light activity in these early days to relieve cramps and improve menstrual-related symptoms, O’Donnell explains.
The ovulation phase
Next up is the ovulation phase, the phase of your cycle where everything feels peachy and possible (not to mention horny). It usually takes place around day 12-15 and is when ovulation occurs, so your estrogen levels peak and an egg is released. You also have a small spike in testosterone, O’Donnell explains, which means it’s a great time to build lean muscle and give the body the ability to store glycogen easily.
How should you exercise during the ovulation phase?
This phase is super beneficial for building strength, so if you’re someone who loves weightlifting, it’s your time to shine, babbbbbby. Focus on hitting those strength and conditioning exercises.
The luteal phase
Ah, the luteal phase (my least favorite). The luteal phase can be one of the trickiest to exercise, this is because it is dominated by progesterone, which can leave us feeling much more rotten and exhausted than the other parts of our cycle. This is the part of your cycle where your premenstrual symptoms start to show.
“Progesterone is catabolic, meaning it breaks down versus builds muscle. Progesterone levels can vary up to six times between those who are menstruating, and progesterone levels can affect how severe your premenstrual symptoms (PMS) may be,” explains O’Donnell.
How should you exercise during the luteal phase?
Given this part of the menstrual cycle where the PMS hits the hardest, you probably feel NO motivation to exercise, and that’s okay.
It’s especially important that you focus more on rest and recovery during the luteal phase anyway, O’Donnell says. “As progesterone drops, our energy levels can also drop, and to get the most out of our bodies in the follicular phase, it’s important to pull things back slightly in the luteal phase.”
This isn’t to say you can’t work out, but focus more on lower-intensity workouts like Pilates, hot girl walks, and yoga.
Personally, I think so many of us struggle with the rest and recovery part of our cycle instead of embracing it. We are so used to the health and fitness grind that we stop listening to our bodies, which can lead to over-exercising.
So does it actually work?
Since learning all this super useful information, I’ve been on a 12-week training program that matches my cycle to prepare for the half mara. I can honestly say that the difference is nothing short of amazing.
By observing what phase of my menstrual cycle I’m in and choosing workouts that fit that phase, I’ve noticed a huge shift in how my mind and body respond to workouts. I’m slowly learning that you don’t have to train like an absolute demon on a daily basis to see a better overall condition. I would even go so far as to say that I am slimmer, more muscular and fitter now than I was 10 weeks ago. And actually, I enjoy working out during my luteal phase, where I previously took the human form of a potato for two weeks.
If you’re already someone who likes exercise, why not adapt it to your menstrual cycle and see if it makes a difference for you? Can’t hurt.
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